Monday, March 18, 2013

Work-Life Balance and Leadership : A Review of Recent Articles and Personal Perspective

There have been a lot of articles on work-life balance and "having it all" spreading recently. These are important thing to think about because the balance you strike is an important personal choice. It is influenced greatly by your superior, which is why I have tied it to leadership as well. Ultimately, every leader and organisation must decide how to balance getting the most out of their people with doing so in a sustainable way. These are my thoughts, tied in to a survey of the literature I have read.

1. Work-Life Balance is a Personal Choice

Ultimately, work-life balance is a personal choice, and choice requires tradeoffs. This is the core of what Ann-Marie Slaughter confronted in "Why Women Still Can’t Have It All" - although written for women juggling work and family, the same applies to men juggling work and family, or work and anything else that is important to you. Many men wrote in to various publications saying they can't have it all either, the most comprehensive perhaps being Michael Winerip's "He Hasn't Had It All Either", a father who has decided it is more fun to work from home and raise the kids. He also concludes that no matter how flexible your work arrangements, you cannot expect to be there for your family and rise to the top at work. You cannot excel both at work and at life, you have to make a decision which is more important to you, and where you want to focus your time. This boils down to your purpose in life and if you haven't thought clearly about this, Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen's "How Will You Measure Your Life" provides good food for thought, using well-established management principles to help prioritise your personal life. This is one of the best books I read in 2013 and I highly recommend it. (You can also watch Clay Christensen's TED talk in the video below.)

2. Work-Life Balance is Not Just About You

There is a misconception that work-life balance is about being happy at work. We get this mixed up with motivation and a sense of purpose. If your work gives you satisfaction, then you have achieved "work-life harmony", you don't need balance. Another way I've heard this: "if your work is your life, then you have balance". This may be true if you are single with no family and friends, but how many of us are really in that circumstance? Every extra hour you spend at work may be an extra hour you have made someone wait sadly for your return. This was the regret of ex-Lehman CFO Erin Callan when she wrote in "Is There Life After Work?" that:

'work always came first, before my family, friends and marriage — which ended just a few years later... I don’t have children, so it might seem that my story lacks relevance to the work-life balance debate. Like everyone, though, I did have relationships — a spouse, friends and family — and none of them got the best version of me. They got what was left over.'
You can be immensely successful at work, but this may not equate to being successful in life. For some, you might even want to ask yourself if you are spending so much time achieving success at work, because you are running away from other parts of your life where you are less successful. And if you continue this, those parts of you may eventually die. (I will need to dig up the citation for this.) It goes back to how you have defined your purpose.

3. Every Person's Circumstance is Different

The personal choice is shaped by varying personal circumstances. Some people are more talented and efficient, others make up by putting in greater effort and longer hours. Some people have to care for ailing parents, others have grandparents and helpers looking after their kids. The stage in life clearly matters too - single, married or married with kids. All these affect the balance of responsibilities and commitments. For completeness, I should also mention that I don't agree with "Lean In" by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and "Living With Less" by Treehugger's Graham Hill, two people who have been very privileged and hence write advice that is out of touch with most people's realities. We shouldn't judge another's choice; and we certainly shouldn't do so without first clearly understanding their circumstance.

4. The Role of Leaders

While work-life balance is a personal choice, the attitudes of you direct superior and even the colleagues around you determines how supportive the environment is. It is difficult to leave work on time if your boss in the habit of calling meetings or handing out work at 7 pm, or is simply openly critical of your work-life choice. Leaders should ask yourself if the work you assign is purposeful, or if you are what Colin Powell calls a "busy bastard" - 'He never rests and as a result, his staff never rests. He’s always making work that expands to fill whatever time is available.' Worse, are you the kind of toxic leader who burns out successive teams of staff in the pursuit of your personal ambitions?

In fact, you should actively watch out for your staff, especially those new to the workplace, to ensure they don't form unhealthy working habits that lead to burnout. I agree very much with Marissa Mayer's theory in "How To Avoid Burnout" that burnout is tied to the resentment bred when we feel forced to give up personal passions for work. If you can identify what is most important to your staff, you could help them be much happier with minimal adjustments. As Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer also recently ended Yahoo's work-from-home policy, receiving very mixed reviews. Critics focussed on how she does not realise that working from home is actually more productive, while supporters recognised that a company in crisis must have more face-to-face interactions to rally together and turn around. Personally, I favour flexibility to work from home, but this is a privilege which must be exercised responsibly.

Another pro-active way is to help your staff develop healthier working habits that energise them, as discussed in Harvard Business Review article "Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time". The Energy Project has examined 4 kinds of energy: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual, and how you can adjust your lifestyle and outlook to maximise energy for better well-being. It also discusses how the company can help. This type of approach can lead to staff that stay happier, more productive, and with you.

5. Work Life Balance and Work Appraisal

No matter what you say about supporting work-life balance, the bottom line is how you factor it into staff appraisals. You don't want to unfairly penalise the person who leaves office early because his work is done; neither do you want to penalise the guy who works late because he is slower, but makes sure the job is done well. One important lesson I've learned is that since you cannot reward everyone equally, it is good to be clear on who is gunning for career advancement and who wants to just cruise - so when there is additional work you can distribute accordingly. The key thing is to have a clear understanding with your staff.

Ultimately, work appraisal should be based on the outcome, not the person's potential, nor the output or the working hours. From a leader's perspective, you should respect the choices made by those under you. If someone has decided to prioritise family, then we should respect that decision and it is pointless to put their nose to the grindstone. Rather, it can be openly agreed that if they choose not to put everything into work, they also will not reap the full reward. But when the pie of rewards is being divided, it should be based on their contributions relative to others, not relative to what they could have done.